USS Bennington veterans dedicate
The U.S. Navy crewmen who died on that fateful day were memorialized Wednesday in Newport, R.I., by veterans of the USS Bennington on the 50th anniversary of the day their ship became a floating inferno.
In one of the Navy's worst non-wartime tragedies, the day is forever etched in the minds of the surviving shipmates of the 27,100-ton USS Bennington. Shortly after dawn, crew members watched in sadness and horror as 103 of their shipmates perished and 220 others were seriously injured following an on-board explosion.
Lancaster crewmen unhurt
Among the survivors of the tragedy were seven young crewmen from Lancaster County. William Ray Crimminger, George H. Strawn, the late Carl Helms Jr., the late J.H. Brasington, J.C. "Calvin" Whitaker, Harry Joe King and Donald Knight all walked back down the gangplank, unhurt.
The Lancaster News reported in its May 27, 1954, issue that at 8:30 p.m. on May 26 only two of them - Crimminger and King - had notified relatives that they were safe.
Knight, an aviation store keeper from Kershaw, had only been aboard the ship a few days when the disaster occurred. Knight was with fighter squadron VF 34, one of four squadrons in Air Task Group 181, attached to the ship's company in preparation for its run to Quonset Point before leaving for a six-month tour in the Mediterranean.
"It was incredible," Knight said. "I lost my two closest friends that day. In our living quarters, one occupied the upper bunk and one the lower - mine was the middle.
"I'm thankful for being spared and for all the others who were also. I believe I am still living today because I was on watch duty and had made my way to the squadron ready room shortly after 5:30 a.m., before the initial explosion," he said.
The State newspaper in Columbia reported four deaths and five seriously injured among those serving from South Carolina.
The Bennington's award-winning Web site, www.uss-bennington.org, and national newspapers graphically record the horrific events of the day.
The ship's catapult exploded, setting off a series of explosions in the forward compartments of the Essex-Class CVA-20 aircraft carrier. As fumes from the catapult's hydraulic fluid spread, the ship's walls became sheets of flame, the intense heat twisted stairs like pretzels and dense, billowing smoke filled the inside rooms and quarters. The flames killed some. Others died from smoke inhalation. Some barely survived. Many survivors struggled with lingering emotional trauma.
The 60 planes on the flight deck were safely launched. But because the explosion was near living quarters, the fire took its toll in human casualties. The 3,000 crewmen aboard the ship helped carry the dead and wounded from the forward end of the ship. They watched as a priest offered prayers for the wounded and administered last rites to those who died. They risked their own lives trying to save others. Many of the ship's officers, warrant officers and senior enlisted personnel were killed.
"Yet, deprived of that leadership, these youngsters got themselves organized and did a superb job of rescuing their shipmates," said Admiral Robert H. Carney, then chief of naval operations, in an article in The State on May 28, 1954.
Big Benn, as she was called by the sailors who called the great ship home, was only 75 miles offshore at the time of the initial explosion. Under its own steam, the crippled Bennington sailed through Narragansett Bay and docked at Quonset Point in North Kingstown, R.I., about noon. Along the way, Navy and Coast Guard helicopters picked up more than 60 seriously injured crewmen and took them to Newport Naval Hospital. On shore, ambulances waited to take others to nearby hospitals, and hearses waited for the long line of sheet-covered bodies.
The memorial, which includes a bronze plaque engraved with the ship's crewmen and members of Air Task Group 181, stands on a grassy knoll in Fort Adams State Park. It overlooks the entrance to Narragansett Bay, where the fire-riddled ship made a port turn on its way to Quonset Point Naval Air Station.
Wednesday's dedication ceremony began with a memorial Mass at St. Lucy's Church in Middletown. The formal dedication was at 11 a.m., about the time the ship passed the memorial site on May 26, 1954.
In a solemn and touching part of the ceremony, surviving shipmates, along with others who served during the Vietnam War, read the names of all who perished, pausing as their voices became choked with emotion.
Two Bennington veterans from South Carolina attended the dedication.
"It's a joy to me to be able to attend this special occasion, to be a part of these Bennington veterans and to be with the families of those who died that day," said Strawn, a Lancaster native who survived the tragedy and attended with his wife, Gale. William Vickers and his wife, Joyce, of Columbia also attended the dedication.
A reception was held afterward at President Dwight Eisenhower's summer White House, within walking distance of the memorial. Many of the about 300 attendees wore buttons or carried pictures of loved ones who died during the tragedy.
Residents in the Rhode Island area also learned more about the Bennington and memorial dedication when NBC Channel 10 in Providence featured the USS Bennington on its program, "Timelines," on Thursday.
Spirit of the men of "Big Benn"
A lasting bond developed among the crewmen who survived the tragedy, as well as a strong sense of kinship among those who later served aboard Big Benn.
William Collins of Newport said he believes the survivors, like himself, have an obligation to make sure their brothers are not forgotten.
While attending the Bennington 2002 reunion in San Diego, Calif., Collins visited the memorial and graves of those who died on the first USS Bennington, a gun boat that blew up in the harbor in the early 1900s, killing more than 60 men.
"It was on that visit that I was inspired to also honor our shipmates from May 1954 off of Newport," Collins said.
With financial support from fellow crew members, the Bennington veterans began soliciting funds for a permanent memorial. They reached their goal in time for its dedication on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.
The committee compiled a list of victims and contacted surviving family members to inform them of the tribute.
Their efforts were not in vain.
Donna Hoey of Lancaster, Calif., lost her father, Dominic J. Eovino. Her brother, Tim Eovino, was too young to remember the tragedy, but their mother kept a scrapbook of newspaper accounts of the explosion and of their father's funeral.
"My brother and I really appreciate your efforts in this memorial," Donna wrote via e-mail. "I am sure this ceremony will give my brother some insight into the great man he had for a father.
"Thank you and God bless you!"
Collins said he realized how much the tragedy affected people's lives.
"These weren't just guys lying on the deck. They all had parents, some of them had wives and children.
"We owed them something."
- Staff writer Barbara Bradley is the sister of USS Bennington survivor George A. Strawn